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Issue 05, Volume 02

The Cinematic Architecture of Haunting

by Gus Reed

"Journeys end in lovers meeting," Eleanor Lance, the central character of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, often repeats to herself. Eleanor, a lonely, self-persecuting soul who has spent her entire adult life playing caretaker to an abusive invalid mother, is haunted before the events of the novel even properly begin. The lover awaiting her at journey's end is called Hill House, and the story of their love is also what many might call a horror story. In Hill House, "a house that was born bad," Eleanor finds a place as haunted as she is. She feels, for the first time, a sense that she belongs somewhere—and Hill House always has room for one more ghost.

The enduring fascination of The Haunting, Robert Wise's 1963 cinematic adaptation of Jackson's novel, arises from its ability to situate us within an unsound space—Hill House—and align us with an unsound mind—Eleanor's. We wander, with Eleanor, through the lonely rooms of the old house. We bend backwards with her for a long look up at its Gothic spires; we notice, more and more, the way its polished floors and curving mirrors hold her reflection. The danger for Eleanor—and for us—is that Hill House, for all its macabre ugliness, has an intoxicating charm. Cluttered with past traumas as it already is, it becomes the perfect canvas for Eleanor's narcissistic projections of fear and desire. As we, too, start seeing ghosts out of the corner of our eyes, Hill House's horrors seem more and more like pleasures. Eleanor, who cowered before the monstrous structure when first she saw it, soon wants to call it home, and there is a grimly satisfying triumph in the way she accomplishes this.

Not all haunted house movies are love stories—but the best ones are. These most extreme of romances deal in the kind of unfulfilled, unfulfillable longing that stretches on into eternity. They find their ideal medium in film, an art form obsessed with its own duration and repetition—with its own time and memory.

Since photography's mid-nineteenth century origins, many have recognized the ghostly qualities of the photographic image. Almost as soon as there was photography, there was spirit photography, an entire industry purporting to capture the materialized likenesses of unseen presences. As critic Tom Gunning points out in Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations, the invention of photography gave rise almost immediately to an awareness of its duplicitous, uncanny nature. "At the same time that the daguerreotype recorded the visual nature of reality," Gunning writes, "it also seemed to dematerialize it, to transform it into a ghostly double." The aesthetics of eighteenth century spirit photography informed the practices of cinema's earliest masters, who reveled in the creative potential of "trick" edits and double exposures. Photography's phantoms were unfrozen.

The haunted house film as we know it today is a relatively modern outgrowth of the same aesthetic that fueled spirit photography, but these cinematic ghost stories often have nothing to do with picturing the specters themselves. The visual mystery is transferred to a far more concrete signifier: the haunted house. Thus, the aesthetic lure of the haunted house film has less to do with the uncanny physical materiality of film images than the conceptual enigmas—questions of memory, love and loss—that must have been close to hearts of the first photographers to discern ghostly presences in their silver plates.

The haunted house is exquisitely cinematic terrain because it translates the most abstract of human concerns into visual and aural fact. The slightest of occurrences within this psychically charged space—a door slamming on its own, a sudden chill, a blurred movement in the dark, or a whole host of other things that go bump in the night—triggers our morbid curiosity about death, our terror of the unknown, our longing for connection with those we have lost. The house becomes a repository of our own stray, unsettled feelings—the ghosts of memory and imagination.

To my mind, there are three truly great haunted house films—and one of them may not even be about a haunted house. The Haunting is the most classical and self-contained of the group, a statement of core beliefs and conventions. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) gives the genre—if I may call it a genre—a proper apotheosis, and, in the Overlook Hotel, one of cinema's most memorable and enigmatic spaces. The third and earliest of these greats comes in the unlikely form of Alain Resnais' modernist puzzle Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a film which may not even literally concern ghosts, but whose circling, lacerated narrative approximates the very essence of haunting.

The haunted house film has its own rules that govern the passing of time, and these rules have little to do with time as we, the living, ordinarily experience it. The Haunting, through the cinematic miracle of narrated montage, guides us through the ninety-year history of Hill House in about four minutes. For the remaining hour and forty minutes of the film, time passes much more slowly, and with far less clarity. Eventually, things come full circle. Before the opening credits, The Haunting presents us with a silhouetted image of Hill House seen from a distance. A man's voice, paraphrasing the opening lines of Jackson's novel, tells us that whatever walks within, walks alone. The film's final frames return us to a similar view and a near-identical voiceover reminder, only now it is Eleanor who speaks to us: "We who walk here walk alone."

The Shining, at first, seems almost desperate to establish an understandable chronology. Title cards announce, for instance, that it is the hotel's closing day, or that one month has passed. As the film progresses, these given times become more and more specific, and increasingly meaningless. What does it matter if it is a Tuesday or Thursday when Jack stares menacingly out into the snow where Wendy and Danny are playing, or that it is exactly 4 PM when someone, or something, lets him out of the pantry? 4PM on what day? Thursday of what month, of what year? After all, in the Overlook Hotel, one can turn a corner and suddenly step into a party in 1921.

If there ever was a Cubist film—a film that foregrounds its own subjection to time just as surely as a Cubist collage proclaims its own flatness—it's Last Year at Marienbad. The film's central man and woman, left unnamed and referred to only as X and A, respectively, in the film's screenplay, repeat the same conversations in different scenes, in different clothes, in different rooms of a cavernous chateau. He tries to persuade her that they share a past; she insists that they have never met. We can't help but believe him over her, since everything we see seems to have happened many times before, and promises to keep happening as long as this woman insists on forgetting.

These derangements of time extend also into space. Hill House, the Overlook and the chateau are distinctive, remarkably ornate settings, and we become acquainted with them in great detail—and yet, they never quite add up into rational spaces we can comfortably reconstruct in our minds. The doors of Hill House are hung slightly off-center, and, according to Dr. Markway, the man who invites Eleanor to stay there, there isn't a single right angle in the place. "No wonder it's impossible to find your way around," she notices. "Add up all these wrong angles and you get one big distortion in the house as a whole."

Kubrick's characteristic tracking shots plumb the labyrinthine depths of the Overlook, an architectural nightmare as puzzling as it is alluring. The Overlook feels like an impossible space partly because it is—it was stitched together from three different exterior locations and a massive interior studio set. Nothing if not meticulous, Kubrick could have easily created a coherent, continuous cinematic space if he so desired, but he chose instead to make the hotel as much of a maze as, well, the literal hedge maze outside of it. Kubrick's patient camera hovers through a beguiling, tangled network of halls, gliding behind Danny as he rides his tricycle in loops, or tracking backwards through the sunlit great room as Jack advances upon Wendy. These continuous shots promise to guide and orient us through an unbroken space, but the more we see of the Overlook, the less we grasp it; we are deliriously, irrevocably disoriented.

Last Year at Marienbad begins with an extended series of tracking shots moving through the empty halls of the chateau. X's narration catalogues the décor with an almost fetishistic diligence:

I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors—silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, moldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings, sculptured door frames, series of doorways, galleries, transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls ...

We don't know how long he has been walking these halls, staring up at the woodwork and moldings, waiting—perhaps months, years—to find A again. For all X's cataloguing of its materiality, the chateau is a purely psychic space, an opulent but decaying relic of a bygone era in which this ghostly couple reenacts the same perpetual drama. The grounds, which seem so empty and rigidly geometric in daylight, become, in the film's final moments, an inescapable labyrinth, a trap out of which this man and woman will never find their way.

As we explore them more deeply, these houses seem at once to grow larger and constrict around us, every room and every object becoming just another metonymic substitute for the whole. The chateau, the Overlook, and Hill House are filled with miniature versions of themselves. In one of The Shining's more surreal moments, Jack stares into a scale model of the hotel's hedge maze and sees the tiny figures of Wendy and Danny moving at its center. In The Haunting, Dr. Markway shows Eleanor and the other guests, Theo and Luke, a monumental marble statue group in Hill House's arboretum, which he says depicts St. Francis curing the lepers. Luke points out that it could just as easily be a portrait of Hugh Crane, the builder of Hill House, and his family. Moments later, Theo half-jokingly suggests that it could, in fact, be a statue of them—and they all agree that one female figure looks just like Eleanor. Marienbad's chateau comes equipped with its very own model and its very own statue group. X and A sometimes examine an engraved map of the chateau and its grounds that hangs in the drawing room, and exchange their changing interpretations of a marble statue of a man and woman they liken to themselves.

There is a pleasure to be had from this claustrophobic, circling self-referentially. The fear experienced by characters in a haunted house, and our own fear as spectators of a horror film, is fused with a peculiar attraction that arises from this very repetition. There is something wildly romantic (and Romantic) about the idea of a desire—whether it is loving or malevolent—so strong that it transcends death, a memory so staggeringly charged that it takes on a life of its own outside the minds of those who first remembered it.

It comes as no surprise then, though it isn't always acknowledged, that these stories of haunting are also romances. Jack, who admits to having fallen in love with the Overlook Hotel the moment he laid eyes on it, is steadily wooed over the course of The Shining. His exploration of Room 237, one of the most disturbing moments of the film, involves a thwarted sexual encounter with a mysterious naked woman he discovers in the bathtub. This ghost-made-flesh, I'm told, is given a name and back-story in the novel, but Kubrick offers no explanation for her presence, so she has always seemed, to me, like an embodiment of the Overlook itself, or at least a projection of Jack's fantasy of it. The grotesque embrace she and Jack share distills the entire arc of the film into a matter of seconds. Their union is one that can be consummated only in death, and the film's final image confirms this long-awaited fulfillment. Jack is frozen into the very history of the Overlook, imprinted upon its very walls. The lovers meet at journey's end.

Eleanor, a wild romantic if there ever was one, may think that she's in love with Dr. Markway for a while, but once she realizes that he is married, she doesn't stay heartbroken for long. Love has been right under her nose—and under her feet, and all around her—this entire time. It's a standard romantic comedy trope for the two lovers to absolutely despise one another when first they meet. Girlish, repressed Eleanor's fear and revulsion towards Hill House give way to an ecstatic longing, and she starts to speak of the House in no uncertain terms of desire. "Don't you understand?" she asks Dr. Markway as he tries to send her away. "The house wants me. Mrs. Markway can't satisfy it, no one else can." No longer afraid of the dark, she wanders through the house alone in her nightgown, twirling through the halls in a delirious, ghostly waltz. The expression that comes over her face moments before she wraps her car around a tree and thus launches herself into Hill House's waiting arms (and here Julie Harris's unforgettable performance must be acknowledged) is one of euphoric surrender and release. This is her very own liebestod, to borrow the operatic term—an all-consuming love that brings on—and survives—death. Before the sounds of the car crash have died away, the whirling view of the shattering windshield cuts away to two shots, in rapid succession, of Hill House—where the real collision has taken place.

The love story between X and A in Marienbad is much more on the surface, but nonetheless even more warped and problematic than the love between Jack and the Overlook, or Eleanor and Hill House. This isn't simply a torrid love affair, a case of l'amour fou that knows no bounds. X's obsession with A, whose eventual surrender to him seems tinctured by fear and resignation, may be something much darker. Many interpret the jarringly strident sequence of shots at the heart of the film, in which the camera repeatedly pushes forward into A's bedroom as she raises her arms into a wooden embrace, as a coded rape. It is unclear who she fears more—X, or the sinister, thin man constantly coming in between them, who may or may not be her husband, and who may or may not have murdered them.

The love surging through the film is not the love between two people, but our own amorous, morbid fascination with the very idea of endlessness, flowing so swiftly before us in this enthralling stream of repeated images and words. In this chateau, time seems to stop and start again. A woman keeps forgetting and remembering the man who says he loves her, and as the clock strikes midnight each night, they seem to be on the verge of escaping together, only to get lost in the dark. Interpret Marienbad how you will, but X and A are ghosts just as surely as are the unseen phantoms of Hill House and the woman in the bathtub of Room 237. They are embedded in the very architecture of the chateau, and try as they might to escape, to forget and to be forgotten, their memory persists in Marienbad's "endless corridors" and "silent halls."

These three films rhyme with another not just because they share certain visual and temporal patterns, but because they use these patterns to dramatize otherwise invisible tensions between present and past, the living and the dead—and most radically, between the transience and permanence of cinema itself. In every room of the Overlook, a different scene from the hotel's past reenacts itself endlessly, seared into the psychic space just as irremovably as the images themselves leave their indexical trace in the film's emulsion. Mr. Halloran, the cook who awakens Danny to his own ability to "shine," warns the boy that the horrific visions he will experience in the Overlook can't hurt him because they are "just like pictures in a book"—he could just have easily told Danny it's all just a movie.

Cinema is a place where there's always a party in the Gold Room at the Overlook Hotel, where, time and again, dancers will sway to the strains of "Midnight, the Stars and You." It is a place where X and A, a man and a woman, will always meet as the clock strikes twelve only to lose each other in the dark again, where Eleanor Lance will, year after year, find in Hill House a warped mirror in which to assemble fragments of herself. These cinematic hauntings offer contradictory promises of their own ephemerality and permanence. They throw us headlong into an abyss of lost time—only to remind us, as we move in circles through these cinematic spaces, that we have all the time in the world.



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